The history of our parish is a colorful one. And it’s one of change. Change that has kept pace with the city it has served for more than 50 years. This Catholic church in the heart of our city has gone through three start-up efforts. It has had five moves. It has had several name changes. And through it all, it has been a center of urban ministry to those in need. But the parish’s history is also one of people. Many people! People who cared a lot for others and their needs. This brief history is condensed from a longer work by Holy Cross Brother Donald Stabrowski in 1991. This report is presented for the information of our parish and the community we serve.
Today’s parish in the heart of Portland was established in 1943. It followed an earlier chapel that dated from 1935. And that chapel had its roots back to a still earlier effort – in 1919. Records are now very scant about the first Downtown Chapel. It isn’t known when its doors were closed. But its start and operation are well recorded. The first chapel got off the ground at the end of World War I. It was started to serve soldiers and sailors returning from abroad. Staff and volunteers helped find jobs for men who were out of work and away from home. The chapel was a joint project of the St. Vincent Guild, Knights of Columbus, National War Council, and Employment Office. And many volunteers worked to open the chapel in a building at NW 2 nd and Couch. It had an altar for Mass, and a separate reading room for visitors. Priests from the Cathedral served at the chapel. And a war veteran, P.J. Hanley, was the first director of the chapel.
The Second Chapel
The second Downtown Chapel was started during the Depression. It was to serve the growing number of men in the heart of Portland who were out of work. And it was a combined effort of lay people and clergy. Father John Larkin and his mother were key figures in the new chapel development. Fr. Larkin became chaplain of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in June, 1935; and that summer he was made assistant pastor at the Cathedral. His father hired men to work in the logging business; and his parents were aware of the number of unemployed men in downtown Portland, and their needs. Fr. Larkin got financial help from his mother and other people. And Archbishop Edward Howard gave his approval for a downtown chapel. The archbishop dedicated the St. Vincent de Paul Chapel at SW 3rd and Ankeny on Sept. 1, 1935. The chapel had regular Masses, and a service center for those in need. It had a reading room, shower and clean-up area, a rest area, and an information center. The chapel was open 7 days a week. Mrs. J. T. Temple ran the information center for the years it was in operation. And the staff and volunteers helped unemployed men find jobs; and often find beds in nearby hotels. In 1937 Fr. Larkin moved to Holy Family parish, but he kept his ties to the chapel. The new pastor was Fr. Jerome Schmitz. That fall a Japanese Catholic school, St. Paul Miki, was started in the chapel by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. In 1939 the chapel was forced to move. Frs. Larkin and Schmitz got the funds to buy a building at NW 4th and Couch. Archbishop Howard renamed the chapel for Christ the Worker. And the service center was renamed the “Archbishop Blanchet Shelter.” That was to honor the first archbishop of Portland. As the Depression ended and World War II began, fewer men were in need of help in the downtown area. And in the spring of 1943 the Downtown Chapel was closed.
A Parish is Born
Hardly has the old chapel closed in early 1943, when Archbishop Howard decided to form a new parish in downtown Portland. It was needed to serve the larger number of Catholics who worked and lived in the downtown area. So, St. Vincent de Paul parish was established in the summer of 1943. A major fund-raising effort was needed to purchase a building at SW 5th and Burnside for the chapel. And the parish rose to the challenge from the archbishop. It raised half the money needed; and the project was completed in April, 1945. Fr. Schmitz was the first pastor of the new parish. Holy Cross priests began serving with diocesan priests. By the end of the war the chapel had a staff of four priests. In March, 1948, a new project was started at the chapel. The Catholic Maritime Club was set up in the basement. It was a cooperative project with the War Relief Services Office. And Fr. Merlin Hamsmith was the first chaplain of the club. Visisiting sailors from around the world came to the club to use its shower and reading room, and attend Mass. Late that year a remodeling effort was started. And a lay group, Friends of the Chapel, took on the task to raise the $30,000 needed for the project. In Jan., 1949, Archbishop Howard rededicated the remodeled chapel. That year the chapel also got its bell. The bell had been purchased in 1889 by Hy Stucksted, for St. Joseph’s church at NW 15th and Couch. It was dedicated to St. Rose of Lima, Patroness of social workers. After St. Joseph’s was closed, the bell had been used at the former chapel of Christ the Worker. The purpose of the new parish was reported in the Catholic Sentinel in 1949. It was “to serve Catholic working men living in the Burnside district, others residing in the business section of the city, and guests of the various hotels.” In the 1950s the parish continued to grow. The chapel was being used by more lay organizations. People from 21 Catholic groups met there to form a new Catholic Social Council. And, in 1954 the Catholic Maritime Club changed its name to the Portland Seamen’s Center.
The chapel neighborhood began to change in the 1960s. More transients and unemployed men arrived. So, a new drop-in center was opened in 1970. Then in 1971, negotiations started for another move – which was to be the last. The U.S. Bank Corporation bought the chapel property for its new building expansion. It financed a new chapel for the parish at the corner of NW 6th and West Burnside – the site of the old Glenwood Hotel. The new chapel was opened in February 1973. It also had residences for priests. And the basement had showers, washing machines and a service center for homeless men. Through the 1970s the chapel took on still more social work. Then in 1981 the archdiocese gave pastoral care of the chapel to the Jesuits. In 1982 the chapel was remodeled. Changes were made so it could better handle its growing social needs. The second floor had an auditorium and kitchen added. Food programs for the elderly and needy were set up on a regular basis. In 1987 the clean-up center moved from the chapel to the Burnside Projects. A hotel was opened for a short time in the basement in 1989. The last change in pastoral care of the parish came in 1989 when the Congregation of Holy Cross assumed responsibility of the parish. At that time Fr. Dick Berg, C.S.C., a Holy Cross priest, was installed as pastor, and in 2000 the parish was named an official apostolate of the Congregation of Holy Cross when Fr. Robert Loughery, C.S.C., became pastor.
In 2009 the parish experienced interior and exterior renovations, accentuated by the Icon of Christ the Healer and the Stations of Mission. In 2011 the parish changed its name to Saint André Bessette Catholic Church.
The parish continues to offer Hospitality, basic needs, and emergency services to those people most in need. The parish continues to gather in Prayer, with daily Mass, community prayers in our lobby each morning, the anointing of the sick, and during our recovery Mass. The parish continues to offer Eduction & Formation Opportunities, such as the Personal Poverty Retreat and Saturday Immersions for high school and college students. Additionally, the community has undertaken a $2.1 million dollar endeavor, entitled The Open Doors Campaign, to ensure the sustainable continuation of its work. Please take time to learn more about Saint André Bessette Catholic Church and its current ministries of prayer, service, advocacy and education for all.